The Paradox of Our Times

Turbulence and chaos – unrelenting and accelerating change – the unpredictability and uncertainty of our time. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more paradoxes there are – where the opposing points of view are both true at the same time.

We have long been conditioned to believe there is the one ‘best’ way – to raise children, to run organizations, to govern countries, to do anything, and we search for and embrace the latest insights, truths, and fads that provide yet a ‘better’ solution to whatever our dilemma. The contradictions are what usually dismay and confuse – for they in a sense defy the logic and reason we have come to rely on to define – at any moment and time – what’s true and what’s real – what’s really going on.

We generally can come to grips with the opposing and contrary – such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘love’ and ‘hate’, ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ – and we can appreciate that one ‘side’ only exists in terms of the other. We can also usually balance the contradictions – such as the desire for perfection vs the absolute sterility of perfection which makes it undesirable, and the consequences of freedom of choice – where freedom to choose also implies the freedom to choose wrong. We can also perhaps see that it is paradox that makes life interesting – that paradox is at the heart of things. Life will never be easy, or predictable or perfect – for if it was – it wouldn’t be ‘living.’

When we go beyond the typical understanding and coping with paradox we often get into trouble, especially in running organizations. In times of difficulty we want more control – and get less. We often apply more of the same ‘medicine’ to solve a problem, and wonder why the problem worsens (or other new problems or fires appear.) We push harder for closure only to find the solution more evasive. We teach, lecture, intervene, direct, and manage more – only to receive less in terms of the results we want to achieve. We work harder at making progress – whether progress is money, power, promotion, understanding, acceptance, love – and find it increasingly frustrating to fall short of our goals. This is where the paradox that is at the heart of the matter gets very confusing and difficult to operationalize.

What can be made clear, however, is that the true paradox of a situation can be revealed simply by doing more and more of the same thing, over and over. The polarity will appear – but unfortunately, it will indeed be the polarity with frustrating and perhaps dysfunctional consequences. How do we manage paradox? The question is of itself a paradox, as it cannot be managed, minimized or controlled. Then how do we live with or cope with paradox. We can appreciate the polarities and understand the puzzles but we cannot resolve them or escape from them completely.

It’s more like dealing with the weather – you live with it, protecting yourself against the worst of it, enjoying the good times, anticipating it when you can as it can have a serious impact on your life, and using it to provide clues to the way forward. We need to learn to balance the contradictions and inconsistencies – and continue to navigate to our goals in the future.

Two relevant quotes:

… the test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Some people) always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance.” – E. F. Schumacher

Living with paradox may not be comfortable or easy, but it reflects a significant understanding of how ‘things’ really work. And the thought of the significance of paradox is not new – it is central to the Tao of Eastern philosophy and many other disciplines. Living with the simultaneous opposites however, may not be a schizophrenic condition. We can be generous in certain circumstances and a tight wad in others. We can be tough and disciplined in driving for results yet relaxed and caring for our children. We can run organizations that are visionary in terms of the long term in some respects and rigorous about the detail in others.

Charles Handy describes living with paradox as like riding a seesaw, and perhaps more of a child-like appreciation of the mechanics is better preparation for what lies ahead. If you know how the process works and if the person on the other end of the seesaw also knows – the ride can be fun. If on the other hand the person on the other end doesn’t know how it works or deliberately upsets the process the results can be an uncomfortable shock. As it is with seesaws – we know we can live with the ups and downs, knowing the opposites are necessary. We can even come to realize that for the process to work effectively, others must get as good as we are.

A few observations of paradox and lessons from the Tao of Leadership and other polarities:

Any over-determined behaviour produces its opposite –

· who would be first ends up last;
· true simplicity is not easy;
· trying to rush matters gets you nowhere;
· the braggart really feels small and insecure;
· the need for constant attention can never be satisfied;
· the abused become the abusers;
· constant interventions can block a group’s process;
· insecure leaders try to promote themselves;
· impotent leaders capitalize on their positions;
· it is not very holy to point out how holy you are.

An awareness of the polarities and paradox can move the action forward positively –

· the wise leader allows the process to unfold on its own;
· teach by example rather than lecture on the ‘shoulds’;
· to be ‘heard’ listen more than talk;
· by being ‘selfless’ the leader enhances self;
· leadership is really service;
· small changes have large impact (leverage);
· silence creates focus;
· less is more.

Paradox – perhaps the key to most effectively handling the chaos and complexity is a consistent and grounded simplicity!

References to:

The Age of Paradox, by Charles Handy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1994.

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider, Bantam Books, New York, 1986.